April 21, 2020

What Top Senior Schools look for in Candidates?


Arguably one of the UK’s best assets is its fantastic secondary education system with institutions envied by the world. The likes of Harrow, Eton, Radley, Westminster, Wycombe Abbey etc,… are globally recognised names and for very good reason. Somewhat differently from other schools is the holistic approach taken, aiming to give students a well-rounded education not just preparing them for the arbitrary stepping stones of GCSEs, A-Levels and University Entrance but preparing students for life. These schools aim to develop students socially, mentally and physically intending to spur on a desire to live a fulfilled life supporting them though alumni associations. These schools are not just academic institutions, they are families with a culture built up over many years. Owing to this nature schools are protective over who they let in.


Most of the top senior schools conduct a process of Interviews and tests to decide whether they want the child at their school. Usually this takes the form of mathematics and English tests and two interviews. The tests assess cognitive and reasoning skills broadly involving memory exercises, English comprehension, mental arithmetic, decision making, processing speed, and in some cases creative writing. Whilst this may seem a daunting list the tests are designed not simply to provide an insight into the child’s ability but crucially to assess the potential of the child. The tests are intelligent and adaptive, altering course and getting harder to see if the child embraces a challenge. The schools are not necessarily looking for the brightest boys in the group or those who have had the best prep school education, but those who have capability, potential and a desire to learn which the school can develop and nurture.

Arguably the interviews are more important than the academic testing. Afterall, students that interviewed well but scored low in tests have been known to get in whereas cases of the opposite are more infrequent. Normally there are two interviews: one with a senior schoolmaster and one with a housemaster or department head. The interviews give the school the opportunity to learn what the child is like and if they think they will fit in at the school making the most of the opportunities given to them. The aforementioned holistic approach taken by the schools is reflected in what they look for in candidates. Interest or passion in a variety of curricular and extra-curricular activities is an important quality they look for. However, I think it is important to mention that this doesn’t necessarily mean the character of an extrovert is required. Increasingly many parents attempt to push their child into an extroverted persona for their interviews when this is often detrimental to their chances as an experienced schoolmaster will be able to see through such a façade in seconds. In fact, being introverted or extroverted is of no consequence, the schools look for children who are themselves and have agency to decide their own interests and a desire to pursue them. Candidates should demonstrate intrigue to learning, debate, exploring the opportunities provided and hunger for embracing new challenges. All of the schools are wrapped in a rich history and have their own language, culture and tradition which is followed pertinaciously by the school, students, schoolmasters and not least the alumni! A willingness to get involved and eagerness to join the ‘family’ and become a part of this culture is important for interviewers to see.


Finally, I think that many parents have a tendency to overthink such entrance procedures and attempt to push and pull an 11-year-old child in various directions, many of which they have no interest or understanding in. A child who has strong interests, potential, enjoys a challenge and reads, cannot do far wrong.